Blog: On the reality and illusion of performance – from Broadway to Byzantium

— This blog post was written by Dr Julie Van Pelt, postdoctoral fellow of the FWO.


One of the main advantages of going abroad for research is the opportunity to travel and experience different cultures. A few weeks ago, during my appointment as a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in the US, I attended a Fulbright event hosted by the Flanders House in New York (see photo). I decided that I had to take advantage of the city’s recent post-pandemic reopening to attend a show at the legendary heart of the entertainment business. Excitement, bold colours, flashing lights, bustling crowds: Broadway! The actual show I found not that exciting, but that is beside the point: I could now proudly say that I had witnessed a paragon of American culture, and call it a day. While the idea of seeing a Broadway show had been raised as a self-evident New York activity, my interest in going was fuelled by memories of a specific movie: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014).

The movie is, in fact, about a play. The near-forgotten Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson, whose career took flight with his role as the superhero Birdman in the eponymous blockbuster but now threatens to crash prematurely, is preparing a Broadway production in the hope of saving his reputation as a respected artist. What has always fascinated me about Birdman is that it deliberately blurs the distinction between reality and illusion. The medium of live performance particularly challenges this distinction. The movie offers a forceful reflection thereon, yet, as I came to learn during my doctoral research, it is something that was already felt by the Byzantines.


Birdman’s main vehicle for thematising the faded boundaries between reality and illusion is the protagonist himself. In the movie, it becomes evident that Riggan is struggling with some issues, which at times hinder his professional endeavour. The problem is that he identifies himself with his character, Birdman. He is plagued by delusions in which he, Riggan, Birdman, has supernatural abilities. Or are these not delusions at all, which exist only in his head, and is he truly an extraordinary person, yet no one can see his true value? Both options are deliberately presented as equally possible. There are various other ways in which the same blurriness regarding what is real and what is illusion comes to the fore in this movie, specifically in the context of the play that is being rehearsed. One of the actors featuring in it, Mike Shiner, owes his success on the stage to his strategy to keep it real while acting but turns out to be a shallow pretender in real life. For instance, he resorts to what may be called method acting and drinks on stage. Unable to engage in sincere connections with his co-actors off-stage, however, he is accused by one of them of being a ‘fraud’ in spite of his professional reputation as ‘Mr Truth’.

In Riggan’s case, reality and illusion are intertwined to such a degree that it is impossible to tell them apart. Mike, on the other hand, deliberately uses that ambiguity as a coping mechanism to be successful both on and off the stage, but, switching out reality for illusion, he loses his way too. Another character, one of the actresses in the play, has to deliver a monologue about pregnancy which becomes strangely meaningful to her ‘real’ self when she finds out that she is actually pregnant. The movie pushes the disorientation game even further: when, in one scene, Mike and Riggan walk down the street, their conversation is underscored with a jazzy tune, which at first appears to be a non-diegetic feature of the movie as filmic composition, but, when a street performer enters the shot, turns out to be a diegetic element ‘truly’ belonging to the story world. When the play finally premiers, Riggan shoots himself on stage with what was supposed to be a harmless weapon in the play’s dramatic closing scene. Rather than being abhorred by the spectacle, the long-feared and vicious New York Times critic praises it euphorically and calls it a new form of ‘super-realism’. The movie thus views the medium of live performance through a critical lens by thematising the ways in which it challenges the distinction of reality and illusion. It so happens that, perhaps without realizing it, the filmmaker has hereby reinvigorated some very old debates about the nature of performance.


Christian Theatre: an Oxymoron?

Byzantium, though it is essentially the direct political and cultural continuation of Greco-Roman society which gave birth to the theatre, never developed a form of theatre of its own. Pagan theatre nevertheless continued to exist well into the Christian era, at least until the 6th century, and was especially popular in cities such as Antioch. However, the Church fathers tried very hard to dissuade the public from attending those spectacles. Among the reasons they disliked it were its ties to the pagan ritual calendar and the immoral contents of the plays, which very often staged adultery and other ‘sins’. However, if they had wanted to lure people away from those pagan spectacles, they might have tried offering them Christian entertainment or plays with a moralizing content instead, right? Those kinds of entertainment did appear, but only from the 10th century onwards, in the West. The Byzantine suspicion of the theatrical spectacle was rooted much deeper, not in the specific shape that late antique plays happened to take (although that was felt to be a problem too), but in the very medium of live performance. According to one Church Father, John Chrysostom, theatrical performances exert a corrupting force because of their ambiguous status: they are both real and not real at the same time. They are staged illusions, but as staged and embodied manifestations, those illusions become inseparable from reality. For instance, if an actor is weeping in order to convey sadness, his tears are real, even if the grief is not. Hence, for John Chrysostom, theatrical representations were thought to corrupt reality and affect the spectator negatively, because they have the power to ‘transform’ reality and infuse it with deception. Today, we may call theatrical representations ‘plays’, but for the Church fathers, they could never be ‘just’ games; they had very real and serious consequences.

The Christian hostility towards live performance was the point of departure for my doctoral research on early Byzantine hagiography. The danger that was felt to flow from the blurred borderline between reality and illusion seemed particularly relevant to me in the context of stories about saints who pretended to be someone they were not. One saint named Andrew pretended to be drunk in order to convince others that he was a lunatic and a fool, while he was in reality a most pious man. It appears the author may have been sensitive to the transformative power of illusions, since, out of all the possible methods Andrew could have chosen to be persuasive as a fool, he engaged in one that is characterized by a sharp distinction between the pretended illusion (intoxication) and the hidden truth (sobriety). While Mike Shiner in Birdman, by drinking on stage, tries to make the dividing line between reality and illusion as thin as possible in order to improve his acting, the fact that Andrew only pretends to be drunk helps to keep his real and pretended identities separate. Both make you wonder, nonetheless, about the truth. Is Mike more truthful, or is Andrew? It is surprisingly hard to say… Both characters thus remind us of how fragile something so seemingly self-evident as the truth really is.

False Realness

The year is drawing to a close and so is my adventure in the United States. One of the many things I have learned about this country is that it takes entertainment seriously and is therefore also very good at it. Broadway is one example. The thrill of a Broadway show lies in the high quality of the costumes, decors, and special effects, which are all aimed at transporting the audience to a different world, which looks surprisingly ‘real’. Broadway excels in false realness. If Church Fathers were hostile towards something like that, the modern public certainly enjoys it. At the same time, as much as the musical I saw (see the photo) was trying hard to make the scenes as realistic as possible, the fact that all the characters went through life singing and dancing was a reminder for me that this was not reality after all. Is this why I am not that into musical? Because, when the characters suddenly break out in song, it disrupts my engagement with the illusion? On the other hand, is not the paradoxical coexistence of a realistic presentation and an untruthful content – false realness – precisely what makes this and other forms of modern entertainment (movies, indeed) exciting? In musical, singing is perhaps a deliberate strategy to enhance the cognitive dissonance. It may be that Church Fathers underestimated the human capacity to be immersed into a presentation and to simultaneously maintain an awareness of its non-seriousness. Birdman offers an interesting experiment of what would happen if such a mental duality would prove to be untenable. At the same time, it also critically reflects on modern entertainment by asking how far the paradoxical coexistence of reality and illusion can be pushed before something cracks. Personally, I believe we need illusions. In our imagination, we can freely explore alternative realities, which, instead of fusing with the ‘real’ reality to form an epistemological hot mess, usually offer a foil for our interpretation of the latter. In that sense, Broadway may indeed be about more than entertainment alone.

Blog: Gods of Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and Xenophon of Ephesos

— This blog post was written by Dr Nicolò D’Alconzo, postdoctoral researcher in the Novel Echoes research group.

“The Greek novel is, in short, an epic of decadence which plays out easy procedures, exactly those that we see today on the screen, in order to stir emotions: oppositions of good and bad guys, of likable and of supporting characters; and procedures like storms and shipwrecks, and attacks by brigands and pirates, in order to plunge the good into misfortune.” I translate from Georges Dalmeyda’s 1926 French edition of Xenophon of Ephesos’ An Ephesian Story (1st-2nd century CE), one of the five extant Greek novels and often the loser of comparisons to any of the other four, not least for the syncopated rhythm of the narrative. I’m surprised less by his (then common) judgement on the decadence of the ancient novels than by his negative appraisal of the films of his time, since some watershed stuff was in the making: 1925 was the year of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, 1927 of Lang’s Metropolis, and in 1928 Buñuel and Dalí would start working on Un chien andalou, not very far from Dalmeyda. Also round the corner was film’s most momentous revolution: talking pictures. Swashbucklers aside (or perhaps included), the frontiers of the thirtysomething-year-old medium were constantly being pushed, and I believe that something similar can be said for Xenophon. Incidentally, what I have in mind is especially germane to film, so I’ll first turn to a contemporary of Dalmeyda who also picked up on the connections between novels and films.


A revolutionary director

Enter Sergei Eisenstein: director, theorist, mega film buff, and, as film buffs among you will know, god of montage. Tasked with making film the medium of the revolutionary working class, from the 1920s onwards he also wrote extensively about film. His essays and books give a good idea of the excitement around the achievements of contemporary film as well as the uncharted territories ahead. Eisenstein knew that in art as in nature nothing is created and everything is transformed, so he had no time for illusions of invention or originality: “It is always pleasing to recognize again and again the fact that our cinema is not altogether without parents and without pedigree, without the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the past epochs.” (232). He looked across media and cultures, absorbing like a sponge any idea that might improve film and get us closer to grasping its nature, from Japanese Kabuki theatre and ideograms to painting (he died when colour films were taking off) and poetry. Nowhere was he keener to acknowledge predecessors than with regards to montage, the technique that ultimately sent him to glory. Particularly famous is an essay of his from ’44 on parallel montage and its masters.[1]


Twist and Shoot

Parallel montage is an editing technique that allows showing two (or more) different actions, happening (though not necessarily) at the same time in separate locations, cross-cutting between one and the other; nowadays it’s called ‘cross-cutting’ or ‘parallel editing’. It adds depth to the story by multiplying perspectives and also builds up tension concerning the connection of the two actions, including if and when they will become one. Now it may look like basic film language, but when it started being used it revolutionised the way in which films could tell stories. D. W. Griffith is credited with pioneering it in film,[2] but the roots of parallel montage are in literature, and Eisenstein’s ultimate model is in fact Charles Dickens. He quotes at length from Oliver Twist to show parallel montage at play to its full and almost cinematic effect. One reason Eisenstein was particularly proud of this ancestry is because he was convinced, not without reason, that films were in his time what Dickens’ novels had been in theirs.[3] We might argue equally that films were in Eisenstein’s time what the ancient novels were in theirs, for narrative techniques tend to be pretty old…


Silent novel

Enter Xenophon of Ephesos, ancient novelist, otherwise obscure figure, and a maverick of parallel montage. His An Ephesian Story, in five books, tells of the love of Anthia (belle) and Habrocomes (beau), their separation, and their adventures across the Mediterranean sea in order to be reunited. Parallel montage is functional to telling the couple’s separate tribulations throughout the first four books, but it’s in the final fifth that Xenophon really goes to town with it. Five separate actions are followed across five countries in Book Five (certainly a coincidence). The characters involved are Anthia, Habrocomes, Hippotoos (enemy turned helper), Leucon and Rhode (servants/helpers of A&H), and A&H’s parents. Their paths sometimes merge and then diverge across Egypt, Southern Italy, Sicily, Rhodes, and Ephesos, the tempo quickening in exhilarating ways towards the chaotic final reunion in the streets of Rhodes. What follows is an actual chapter in Book Five. The narrative is continuous, only segmented according to the different actions. Picture the changes of scenes. Also consider the reading time for each scene, double it, and pretend it’s film time.

“Hippothoos sailed over and landed in Sicily -not at Syracuse but at Tauromenion. He started looking for a way to support himself.

In Syracuse, now that a long time had passed, Habrocomes fell into depression and serious difficulty because he could neither find Anthia nor go back home. So he decided to take a boat from Sicily to Italy and travel up the peninsula. If he couldn’t find anything he was looking for, he would make an unlucky journey back to Ephesos.

By this point both their parents and everyone else in Ephesos were in deep sorrow because no message or letter had come from the couple. They sent search parties in all directions. Unable to hold out against despair and old age, both sets of parents had ended their lives.

While Habrocomes was taking his trip to Italy, Leucon and Rhode, the companions of Habrocomes and Anthia, decided to sail to Ephesos.”[4]

If this were a silent film, which in my mind it is, without changing much to the text, each of these sections could be the title card before the respective scene. Notice too the geographical red thread that connects the sections, each containing the location of the next one. My favourite cut is when the camera shows Ephesos in Habrocomes’ mind and moves seamlessly to the flashback on the parents therein. Some have ascribed so hectic a prose either to sloppy writing or the abridgement from an originally longer version, but I’ve asked Xenophon and he said no, it’s parallel montage. And indeed it’s the visual that helps readers navigate the cross-cutting. When Habrocomes’ action is resumed a little later (“Habrocomes, meanwhile, set sail from Sicily”), we find him in the same shot as his last one (the “take a boat from Sicily to Italy” from before). The same goes for Anthia. We see a shot of her in bed just before we cut to Habrocomes setting sail, and after a bit of him sailing and whining we come back to her, still in bed: “So he was lamenting and suffering from his labours. Meanwhile Anthia had a dream as she slept in Taras.”


Novel films

When they emerged in the 1st century CE, films – I mean novels invented nearly nothing – even montage went back to the earliest Greek literature. The concept has no start date and can easily be seen everywhere if one wants to (this sentence, like the rest, was nothing but a montage of words). Similarly, when they emerged on the cusp between the 19th and 20th centuries, films borrowed narrative techniques that other media had been honing for millennia. Their application to the new medium must have felt familiar, but at the same time entirely new. I wonder if the readers of Xenophon, used to the long tradition of Greek literature but quite new to narrative prose fiction, felt something similar.


[1] “Dickens, Griffith, and the film today”, in Film form: essays in film theory. New York (N.Y.): Harcourt, Brace (1949), transl. J. Leyda. All quotes from Eisenstein are from this essay.

[2] Eisenstein both admired and condemned Griffith: “Among the most repellent elements of his films (and there are such) we see Griffith as an open apologist for racism, erecting a celluloid monument to the Ku Klux Klan.” (234)

[3] “What were the novels of Dickens for his contemporaries, for his readers? There is one answer: they bore the same relation to them that the film bears to the same strata in our time” (206.)

[4] Translations of Xenophon’s novel are from S. Trzaskoma, Two novels from ancient Greece: Chariton’s Callirhoe and Xenophon of Ephesos’ An Ephesian Story. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. (2010).

VACANCY: fully-funded PhD fellowship (4 years) at Ghent University (Belgium)

The Novel Saints: Ancient Fiction and Hagiography Research Centre at Ghent University (Belgium) is seeking well-qualified applicants for a full-time doctoral research fellowship on The Holy Romance. Characterization and concepts of fiction in Italo-Greek hagiography. The project is funded by the Flemish Research Foundation (F.W.O.-Vlaanderen) and will be supervised by Prof Koen De Temmerman and Dr Julie Van Pelt.


The successful applicant will examine literary and rhetorical constructions of character and concepts of narrative and fiction in Lives, martyr acts, and encomia written in Greek between the 5th and the 13th centuries and describing the lives of Christian saints and martyrs of Sicily and Southern Italy.


The successful applicant will start employment no later than 1st October 2022. In order to be eligible, candidates must have obtained their MA degree at the time of application or demonstrate that they will have that degree in hand by the start of their doctoral fellowship.


Envisaged profile: the successful candidate will have:

1. an MA degree in Greek Language and/or Literature;

2. excellent study results (including BA and MA dissertations of very high quality);

3. excellent knowledge of ancient and/or medieval Greek;

4. a demonstrable interest in (research into) the literary and/or cultural history of Late Antiquity and/or the Byzantine Middle Ages;


All these aspects should be evident from the application (e.g. transcripts of course results, percentiles indicating where applicants rank within their cohorts, topics of optional courses taken, and of papers and dissertations).


Will  be considered advantages:  

1. a demonstrable interest in and/or experience with (research into) ancient fiction and/or Byzantine hagiography;

2. modern literary-theoretical models (strong familiarity with narratology, rhetorical theory, theory of character, and/or theory of fiction).


We offer

1. a contract for four years of full-time employment as a PhD student, subject to positive evaluation after one year;

2. an internationally competitive salary that corresponds to the salary scales for PhD students as established by the Flemish government;

3. a substantial allowance for travel and other research purposes in addition to the salary;

4. office space at Ghent University and a solid and engaging academic working environment with a strong international profile. The project resonates with the interests of a number of other scholars at Ghent University and the successful candidates will be able to interact with scholars and students affiliated with various departments and research institutes, such as the Department of Literary Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Ghent Institute for Classical Studies, the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies, the Ghent Centre for the Study of Christian Traditions, and the Group of Early Modern Studies.

5. the possibility to acquire transferable skills as part of a Doctoral School programme.

6. professional support for those applying to the many funding schemes at local, regional, and European levels.


We expect that the successful applicant

1. will write and successfully defend a PhD dissertation within the four years of the fellowship;

2. will contribute to the strong research tradition of the Research Centre, the Department, and the University by pursuing excellence in their research and by publishing their results in journals and with publishers that are internationally accepted as being of the highest quality;

3. will come and live in Belgium, work together with the other team members, and contribute to a pleasant and stimulating atmosphere;

4. will contribute to the scholarly activities of the Research Centre (e.g. by organizing events in collaboration with the supervisors and/or other members of the team, etc.).


How to apply?


(a) Applications should be sent by email to the Project Coordinator, Dr Evelien Bracke (, and should include

1. a cover letter highlighting why the applicant is interested in this project, how it resonates with their own expertise, what relevant experience/knowledge they have, and what added value they expect to bring;

2. a full curriculum vitae (including accurate information on grades and study results, e.g. official results lists if available);

3. the applicant’s MA dissertation (and possibly other relevant writing samples such as papers or a BA dissertation) and a sample of published work (if available).


(b) In addition, we kindly ask candidates to arrange for two letters of reference to be sent directly to by the referees.


Deadline: applications (parts a and b) should arrive no later than 15th October 2021.


Please address any queries to the Principal Investigator (


Ghent is an attractive medieval town, with a strong economic base and lively cultural scene. Just 30 minutes by train from Brussels, two hours from Paris and Amsterdam and two and a half hours from London, it is ideally situated at the heart of European intellectual life.


Blog: Reflection on the nature of ancient novels Or My life before the Novel Echoes project

— This blog post was written by Dr. Claire Rachel Jackson, postdoctoral researcher in the Novel Echoes research group.


I was coming to the end of the first year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Warwick in the UK, looking at a list of courses to take in the following year. There were so many possibilities, so many of which I knew nothing about, but one in particular struck me –The Origins of the Modern Novel? What on earth could that mean?

I shouldn’t have been interested in a course like Origins of the Modern Novel. At nineteen, despite knowing so little of the wider reaches of Classics, I was nonetheless confident that I was a historian. Looking back, my idea of history was really just an obsession with Tacitus’ writings and the ways his complex, unbalanced Latin reflected the secretive style of his texts, but even so, my interests at that time lay miles away from Greek novels. Although I was an obsessive reader, I’d always hated studying literature and being told the ‘right’ way to read a text – what I liked about classical literature was its multifaceted nature and the contradictions which complicated any straightforward reading.

Lucian in the snow

But this was exactly what I got with Origins of the Modern Novel. A real miscellany of a course, we looked at Petronius’ Satyrica, the mini-novella of Nisus and Euryalus in Aeneid 9, the pseudo-Senecan satirical Apocolocyntosis, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, Lucian’s Vera Historia, and more. A basic overview of narratology introduced me to Barthes, Bal, and Genette for the first time. I spent the Christmas vacation of my second year reading Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Lucian’s True Histories during a snowy trip to Venice, not caring that my boots and socks soaked through after an ill-advised walk through the flooded St Mark’s Square as long as my books remained dry. (I still love walks through the snow – see image on the right.) These texts – a strange mixture of fantasy, realia, eroticism, horror, and more – all resisted simplistic readings. Instead, they opened up wider questions – how were such texts read? Who read them? What could they tell us about the contexts in which they were composed? Perhaps most importantly of all, what did they tell us about the ways ancient readers understood fiction?

Defamiliarising fiction

I’d always loved Classics because it allowed for a holistic look at cultures which had so many links with the modern world but which retained a fundamental strangeness which forced you to think about how language, literature, and culture influenced each other to create something both ancient and new. My earliest exposure to Classics had been spotty – my school had a stack of old Cambridge Latin Course textbooks from the 70s and no teacher, which meant I’d learned Latin with a teacher borrowed from a local private school who had taught us twice a week at 8am, before the school day officially began – but I’d been quickly hooked precisely because of its unfamiliarity which somehow evoked flickers of recognition. The variety of texts in the Origins course brought all of this together into a form which was technically familiar – novels are after all the most recognisable form of written fiction in the twenty-first century – but with themes and content which I hadn’t expected.

It exposed me to something I realised I’d always known but never really understood: fiction is a cultural phenomenon which needs to be contextualised. While you could argue that fiction has existed as long as the human imagination had an outlet, how it is read and conceptualised depends a lot on the culture in which it is consumed. If we look at these ancient texts as ‘the origins of the modern novel’, do we risk missing out on the ways these texts were thought of in antiquity, a world without terms such as ‘novel’ and without strict distinctions between fiction and non-fiction? This friction between the modern understanding of novels as unproblematically fictional, a form almost boringly recognisable, and ancient novels as something without such familiarity, got to the heart of my love of Classics: the tension between the knowable and the unknowable, the well-known and the defamiliarised.

So many questions

Despite my love of Tacitus, the sheer novelty of ancient fiction won out. After the Origins course, I did my undergraduate dissertation on the Roman novels of Apuleius and Petronius, and when I moved to Cambridge for postgraduate study I continued with novels, moving increasingly over to the Greek novels of Chariton, Xenophon, Longus, Achilles Tatius, and Heliodorus. My PhD thesis looked at concepts of fiction in these texts, not through narratological readings, but as a contextual phenomenon which reflected both earlier philosophical and rhetorical discussions of fiction and also contemporary imperial practices. In other words, I wanted to understand ancient novelistic fiction as a product of the literary cultures of the Roman empire, and to think harder about fiction as a conscious choice rather than just a naturalised part of the novelistic genre as understood by modern readers.

But the questions I’d had since being introduced to the novels remained. I knew that there was very little evidence for how the novels were read in antiquity, and the few testimonia which were extant were often only talked about in the vaguest terms because they undercut the sophistication and value modern scholars wanted to ascribe to the texts. But I remained curious about them. Why was there a tradition stating that some (very obviously) pagan novelists were Christian bishops? Why were some texts talked about so much and others so little? I wanted to explore these later receptions further, but was dissuaded from doing so by my own limitations – being a very traditionally trained Classicist, I was much more comfortable looking back at earlier traditions than moving forwards into the hinterlands of late antiquity and Byzantium – and the lack of scholarly interest about such receptions. Regretfully, I focused elsewhere for during my PhD, working both within the strict limits of the word count and lack of support for what felt like fringe interests. After my PhD I began to dip my toes into these waters, expanding my confidence with later periods and beginning to look more critically at these much-maligned testimonia, while feeling unsure whether this was of interest to anyone except me.



Novel Echoes and New Directions

But then I learned about the Novel Echoes project. Hearing about the project perimeters gave me a thrill of excitement: while I’d been feeling constrained by reading the novels solely as imperial texts building on earlier classical traditions, here was a plan to look at the hitherto unexplored terrain of the novel’s earliest receptions not just within Greek and Latin traditions, but in a wide-ranging way across a variety of cultures and time periods. Rather than reading the ancient novel as an ancient precursor to its modern counterpart, here was the potential for a new and more nuanced history of the novel which complicated these simplistic narratives. While I’d previously felt like an outlier for my interests, the project members and the variety of time periods, languages, and cultures they were exploring created the kind of supportive group I hadn’t dared to dream of. I still can’t quite believe my luck that I’m part of such a great team, and that I’m finally getting the chance to research things which I never thought would be considered valuable to anyone besides me. Being able to join the project not only allowed me to join a wonderful team doing incredible research, therefore, but also validated the questions I’d been asking since I read my first ancient novel.

Blog: How the ERC changed our lives: The Syriacist’s perspective

— This blog post was written by Dr Mara Nicosia and Dr Simon Ford, both postgraduate researchers in the Novel Echoes project.


It was a dark and stormy afternoon in Ghent, as we sat in office 007 – masks on and windows dangerously opened, in the midst of the pandemic – and tried to make sense of a particularly irksome string of Syriac text, when we realized how fortunate we were to be able to share the experience of collaboration after more than a year of lockdown-related uncertainty and isolation. Although from different continents, we had both been trained in Semitic languages and well-schooled in the frustration of early-career academia. Then, “behold, there was light”, if not in the sky above Ghent, then in our understanding of the text and in our appreciation of our positions at Universiteit Gent.

Before being “brought to the light”, we did not know each other, but we were both piling up small projects and teaching to make ends meet, with a constant feeling of being underappreciated and unable to fulfill our research interests. Mara in Spain and Simon in the United Kingdom, we were struggling equally between the needs of the moment and our long-term research goals, which centered around the study of Syriac language and literature. First attested around the 2nd century CE, Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of the town of Edessa (modern Turkish city of Şanlıurfa), which was standardized into a literary and liturgical language and eventually turned into a major language used by some Christians throughout the Levant, Middle East, Central Asia, and India.

An ecclesiastical historian who had previously worked on the anti-Chalcedonian movement in the 6th century, Simon was hired to work on and coordinate a project on the representations of beauty and erotic desire in Late Antique hagiography as part of the ERC funded Novel Echoes project. Mara, on the other hand, has devoted the past few years to the study of Syriac rhetoric in comparison with Greek and Arabic traditions, and has been hired to study the Near and Middle Eastern echoes of the Greek novel in Syriac and Arabic literature. Together, we share the same copy of a Syriac dictionary (kindly provided by Simon) and an ever-growing list of possible purchases to submit to the library (which, like this blogpost, was written in collaboration in order to share the blame), as well as the feeling of being exceedingly lucky now to belong to a project which allows us to widen our interests and develop new research skills and strengths.

Since the beginning of our time in Ghent, we have realized that our existing skills and background knowledge made us compatible research buddies and at least one decent Syriac scholar (or two thirds of a very good one). For this reason, we have started working together, sketching out future publications and joint efforts. For instance, in the next couple of months, we will start re-analyzing and editing the Syriac fragment of Psedo-Nilus’ Narrationes, a text which was originally written in Greek probably around the beginning of the 5th century CE and which describes the martyrdom of a group of monks in the Sinaitic desert.

So, here’s to new projects, here’s to new colleagues, here’s to Ghent, and here’s to the ERC! Happy research to you all!

Blog: The Lykainion Look: on two adaptations of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe

— This blog post was written by Dr. Nicoló D’Alconzo, postdoctoral researcher in the Novel Echoes research group.


Much like the protagonists of the ancient Greek novels, cinema and novel fell in love at first sight and lived happily ever after. Oddly enough, though, especially given cinema’s endless interest in depicting the ancient world, only one out of five extant Greek novels made it into film. It’s the 3rd-century pastoral novel Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, which tells the love story of the titular characters, two teenage shepherds with no idea of what love is and what to do about it. Even more disproportionately, it was made into film more than once. I know that the reason for this is the success the novel enjoyed in the modern age as well as the fact that a subject that’s already been filmed stands more chances of being filmed again. I suspect that another part of the reason is that Daphnis and Chloe is incomparably simpler and cheaper to film than the other Greek novels. But it may also be, I think, because in that simplicity lies an attention to viewing that speaks directly to the dynamics of cinema.


Spying privileges

There’s an extended scene in Orestis Laskos’ silent film Daphnis and Chloe (1931) in which Lykainion spies on Daphnis and Chloe from a small hilltop (see image on the right), while the young and clueless shepherds are experiencing their relationship one innocent and clumsy step at a time.  The more experienced Lykainion is obviously enjoying the show. The scene is an excellent depiction of one sentence in the novel: “She followed Daphnis and Chloe, keeping close behind; and, hiding in some bushes so as not to be seen, she heard everything they said and saw all they did.” This happens three-quarters into the novel, after the narration of all the games played by Daphnis and Chloe, including their attempt at sex. When we read this, Lykainion has been in the novel only for a few lines, but we realise, retroactively, that she’s been in the story for a while (“She saw Daphnis every day…”). It’s a little spooky, because up until that moment we thought we were the only ones with spying privileges, but now we find out that she was there with us, or perhaps we with her. No filmmaker could pass a peeping-Tom opportunity like this, and in fact Laskos anticipates Lykainion’s arrival and punctuates the games of Daphnis and Chloe with shots of her, to remind us that we’re watching them from her point of view. Of course she is a predator (the name means ‘she-wolf’) and will get what she wants (Daphnis), but it’s for the greater good of his learning what he and Chloe have been searching for. Laskos captures well her ambivalent participation in the story and invites us to reflect on ours.


Snow globe narrative

The film makes some spectacular self-sabotaging choices, number one of which has to be bringing forward the final recognition of Daphnis by his real parents, with obvious anticlimactic repercussions on the ending. But this allows a St. Sebastian-style torture scene which explores further one of the film’s main interests, namely the representation of bodies (it’s credited with the first nude in cinema and does an incredible job at rendering tactility). Another thing that the film does admirably is to convey the idea that nothing can seriously harm Daphnis and Chloe, not torture (quickly forgiven) and not Lykainion (a benefactor). I often see the world of Longus’ novel as a snow globe, minus the melancholia of actual snow globes: you can peer into it from different angles (‘the Lykainion look’ again) and enjoy the idyllic view, but you can’t go in, and it can’t come out. What goes on inside, the sexual awakening of the protagonists, is a sacred business carefully tended by the narrator, the gods, and nature herself, and while the culmination of the story is dramatic (“Chloe found out that what they had done in the woods had been nothing by shepherds’ games”), the loss of innocence could not have been narrated with more care. The film does not take us that far and ends with a reunion scene in a bucolic setting, but it contains a hint as to the future. Chloe watches Daphnis from behind a rock for a while, before surprising him (left). Maybe it’s her last game, or maybe she’s become a bit of a Lykainion herself.



Young loves

Nikos Koundouros’ Young Aphrodites (1963), by contrast, crashes the snow globe into the ground and makes sure you will never put the shattered pieces back together. It tells of the encounter between a group of nomadic shepherds and the community of women whose water and land they have come to share for a few days. The women’s husbands are fishermen currently out at sea, and the women put up a barrier as soon as the shepherds arrive. The rest of the story writes itself. It’s not a matter of if, but of how soon and how badly. Only two of the women dare to roam free (Arta, a young woman married to one of the fishermen, and the twelve year-old Chloe) and they attract the attention of three shepherds who are also at different points in life: Tsakalos, the man, Lykas, the teenager, and Skymnos, a few years younger than Lykas. At the heart of the film are the two parallel games of attraction and seduction, between Arta and Tsakalos, and between Chloe and Skymnos. Lykas, who has inherited Lykainion’s name and role, is in the middle, watching the boy and the girl (right), waiting for an opportunity which in the end, and painfully, will occur. Some of Longus’ images are developed to great effect. Daphnis’ bird traps, for example, laid out as an excuse to stay around Chloe’s house when he misses her, become Arta’s giant nets, which entrap her and Tsakalos as well as birds. Indeed, birds are the third element in between the two groups of humans, which belong to the land and the sea. Their sizes and destinies reflect the characters and their feelings: too big, too small, too trapped.


The Lykainion look

Young Aphrodites (terrible title) is spoken, but with only about 200 lines in 90 minutes you would have thought this the silent film and not Laskos’, which indulges in pretty hefty dialogue intertitles. Everything is conveyed through the filming of eyes and body movements, and one of the things that make the film exceptional are the games of Chloe and Skymnos in a rugged rocky landscape by the sea, a clearly liminal and symbolic location. There’s something about the rawness of their chases, the frustration of their stares, the hopelessness of their promises to one another, which is at the same time warming and tragic. Longus is nowhere near as effective at conveying the protagonists’ pains. They are the ones who carry the burden of all the different structural clashes and, too small and unguided, are crushed by it (their totem bird is a crucified pelican). A distorted version of the Lykainion look serves Koundouros well in playing out all of this. It is used to show the pair spy on Arta and Tsakalos having sex in a cave, looking at what may await them as well (left). But it’s a spectacle that scars them, offering no answer they can understand and instead throwing them into an unhappy confusion. It is also used to show Skymnos observing the excruciating rape of Chloe by Lykas (below). The difference between the shots of Lykainion and Skymnos sums up the different keys of the films as well as the viewers’ position. Young Aphrodite is an unforgiving, almost neorealist take on the story of Daphnis and Chloe, with no room for idealisation. It’s as if Koundouros wanted to test part of the plot against real life (as real as imagined 200BC Greece can be), and part of me wishes he hadn’t.


Blog: On academic mobility and the virtues of uncertainty (bis)

— This blog post was written by Dr. Julie Van Pelt, postdoctoral researcher in the Novel Saints research group.


In the past few days, I have barely left my house. This is not due to the national lockdown (which is obviously also a source of reduced activity, but not the reason for my self-imposed quarantine): it is because I am afraid to miss a delivery. I find myself in a constant state of readiness to run downstairs in case the doorbell rings, now and then casting nervous glances out onto the street. Yes, I am expecting special mail: a ridiculously important piece of paper called ‘DS-2019’. It is the key to my planned research stay in the United States during 2021, and the first step in the process of applying for a Visa. Normally, getting the document is the easy part. But nothing is easy these days—and don’t get me started on ‘normal’.

I went through the process of applying for a Visa with the US embassy in Brussels before, in 2019. The whole experience was frustratingly complex even then. To make matters worse, on the very day of my appointment at the embassy, a fire had broken out in a tunnel close to Brussels Central, interrupting all train traffic. But a few detours could not keep me from my goal. I eventually managed to make all necessary preparations and left for a two-month research stay in Washington DC, which turned out to be one of the best academic experiences of my career so far. (See image to the right: the library of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, currently closed due to Covid – picture taken in 2019.) The plan was to go back for further research and, this time, the envisaged stay is twelve months. However, this time, what stands in between me and my research plans is not a fire, but a virus.

Covid-19 has impacted all of our lives drastically, whether it is by changing the conditions in which we work (or are unable to work), by isolating us from friends and family or, worse, by impairing our health or that of those we love. A less visible but equally strenuous problem is that our lives are currently controlled by uncertainty. In my case, a fairly big event (moving abroad for a year) has been on hold so far, and it is unclear whether it’ll happen in January, later in the year, or not at all. Yet, this uncertainty is experienced by all of us to a certain extent. As my colleague Ellen Söderblom Saarela put it in her blog post last June: “Collectively, we’re living in a state of uncertainty.” Six months and another lockdown later, this hasn’t changed. The inability to plan ahead, whether it concerns matters small or large, is disorienting. Uncertainty forces us to reinvent our daily habits as well as our default mental patterns for dealing with life’s events. When it comes to my own plans, I might be at the point where I’m hoping for a miracle, some sort of magical solution.


Not your everyday miracle

In fact, miracles—stories about miracles, to be precise—are what I am going to study during my time in the US. But these miracles are different from the proverbial one I just told you I’m hoping for. In the ancient and late antique world, miracles were potentially everywhere and they were potent signs and vehicles of meaning. During the first centuries CE, Christianity indeed relied on the belief in miracles to expand its influence throughout the Roman empire. Rather than being incredulous towards the inexplicable, early Christians would embrace wondrous events precisely as indices of truth which induced faith. The deeds of Jesus and the apostles were interpreted as meaningful signs pointing to the one true course of life—and death. Stories were a crucial part of that process of interpretation.

Miracles have to do with uncertainty too. In the volatile world of the early Christian era, uncertainty was a huge part of life. Apart from the constant threat of war and disease, society faced great political instability, and it was not able to rely on advanced technologies to predict the immediate future. This meant that people had to be well equipped mentally to deal with the instable reality within which they were living their lives. There were many ways in which ancient societies regulated the ability of individuals to construct a meaningful whole out of the chaos. Christianity offered an antidote to the uncertainties of life in the form of a firm promise about a certain afterlife. Miraculous thinking was another way of handling these challenges. As a form of interpretation of what are, in essence, unexplained and ostensibly irrational events, the idea of the miraculous imposes order on a chaotic world; it provides meaning to what seems inexplicable. In this context, a miracle is not an unexpected solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem, but a steady guide in an unstable environment.


Magic and ambiguity

Yet, the meaning of miracles was not always straightforward. Since they are the product of an act of interpretation, they are open to different forms of understanding and (in the eyes of some) misunderstanding. Jesus and the apostles were frequently charged with accusations of magic by opponents of the new religion. This was an effective strategy to discredit them as well as the power they were perceived to be invested with, and therefore discredit the entire religion they sought to promote. For magic had sinister connotations: in the eyes of the broad public, it was typically practiced by outsiders and charlatans.[1] Hence, the same unexplained events which offered a steady guide towards meaningful truth for some, would be interpreted as manifestations of deviance for others. While today, magic and miracle are seen as closely related, in the ancient world, they were each other’s opposites, one driven by a beneficial divine power, the other by evil demonic forces. Yet what made things particularly tricky was their superficial resemblance. In the apocryphal Acts of Peter (2nd cent. CE), the apostle is made to duel the evil magician Simon in a supernatural powers-contest taking on blockbuster proportions. Based on their performances, the Roman public must decide who is truly from God and who is the impostor, since both claim the status of divine agent.[2] (See image right: Simon Magus flies through the air above Rome with the help of demons.)

Eventually, then, even miracles were not a watertight answer to the uncertainties of life. As a system of interpretation, they were in competition with other systems. While this does not necessarily detract from their potency, it does offer us a powerful idea of the profound ambiguity of the physical reality surrounding us. This ambiguity, which makes miracles vulnerable to the discrediting charges of magic, is what humans are faced with constantly and must try to interpret meaningfully.


Doubt in the internet age

The ambiguities and uncertainties of life have not necessarily disappeared in the modern day. Yes, we generally know with relative accuracy what the weather is going to be like tomorrow and we can similarly find out about almost any other fact with great ease. Yet the idea that we live in an age of certainty is, to some extent, an illusion. For instance, the internet has such an abundance of information to offer that one can easily lose their way in it. At the same time, according to one documentary, social media are currently designed to reinforce the patterns of thinking with which you came to these platforms in the first place rather than to offer you a wide range of options or ideas. So even if we can technically know about almost anything, what do we believe and why? What has become shrouded by the false impression of certainty, in my view, is that data and knowledge about the world, no matter how extensive and detailed, still demand interpretation, just as any other experience. As in the ancient world, this often requires some sort of set of ideas that is not purely rational, but cultural, open to change, and not necessarily shared by all. Hence, the idea that ‘big narratives’ govern societies, which we usually find in the context of the pre-modern world, may still be valid (in fact, astrology, one of the most ancient methods for interpreting life itself, has gained tremendous popularity in the last decade). Only, today, these ‘narratives’ might be somewhat less visible. (See image on the right: The Cathedral of Saint Peter in Exeter. Monumental churches around the world make the big narrative of Christianity highly visible.)

As my research about ambiguity in the ancient world got me thinking about uncertainty today, it inevitably made me reflect on the uncertainty I am personally facing with regard to my academic adventures abroad. It is undeniable that the pandemic has brought more uncertainty into my life than before. Nonetheless, another way to think about this is that the current crisis did not necessarily create new challenges but made the existing ones rise to the surface, rendering them more acute. Perhaps the uncertainty was always there, but I failed to notice it because I was too busy making plans, by-passing uncertainty before it could even manifest itself. In other words, there is an opportunity here to think about how we go about our lives. (Or, to use Ellen’s words again, “uncertainty carries an inherent potential”—coming at this from my own academic corner, I can only agree.) What does it mean to go abroad for research, for instance? And what does that contribute to my personal narrative; how is it meaningful? If anything, the crisis has taught me to be more self-aware about my choices, as well as about the fact that not everything is under my control. What I can control, is the way in which I understand and interpret the uncertainty and ambiguity I find all around me.


[1] For more, I refer the reader to D.J. Collins (ed.), The Sacred and the Sinister. Studies in Medieval Religion and Magic (Pennsylvania, 2019).

[2] The Acts of Peter has been edited and translated into German by M. Döhler, Acta Petri. Tekst, Übersetzung und Kommentar zu den Actus Vercellenses (Berlin/Boston, 2018).

VACANCY: postdoctoral researcher in late antique and/or medieval Greek and Near Eastern narrative

Job vacancy: fully-funded Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in late antique and/or medieval Greek and Near Eastern narrative (2 years) at Ghent University (Belgium) (deadline: 5 January 2021)


The Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University (Belgium) is seeking well-qualified applicants for a fully-funded and full-time postdoctoral research fellowship in the European Research Council Consolidator Grant project Novel Echoes. Ancient novelistic receptions and concepts of fiction in late antique and medieval secular narrative from East to West (for an abstract, see Its Principal Investigator is Prof Dr Koen De Temmerman, who specializes in ancient fiction and its reception.

The successful applicant will start employment after 1 March 2021. In order to be eligible, candidates must have obtained their PhD degree max. 6 years before the envisaged starting date (according to the date mentioned on their doctoral degree) or demonstrate that they will have that degree in hand by that date.


Within the ERC project, subprojects are assigned to individual team members. For the current vacancy, this subproject is situated in the following area: GREEK AND NEAR EASTERN STORY-TELLING: CONTACTS AND RECEPTION IN THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN IN LATE ANTIQUITY AND THE MIDDLE AGES.

The successful candidate will work on receptions of ancient Greek fiction in Near Eastern story-telling, on the importance of rhetorical, hagiographical and/or other narrative traditions therein, and on concepts of fiction in cross-cultural narrative environments of the Eastern Mediterranean (in, for example, Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Samaritan, or Manichaean literary corpora).



  • You hold a thesis-based doctorate (obtained max. 6 years before the envisaged starting date; see above) in a field of study relevant to the project.
  • You have an excellent command of (ancient or Byzantine) Greek and/or one or more Near Eastern languages (Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian).
  • Will be considered an advantage:
    • Expertise in comparative literature and/or literary theory;
    • A demonstrable interest or specialization in intellectual or cultural exchange between the Greek/Byzantine world and Near Eastern cultures;
    • Demonstrable research experience with cross-cultural transmissions, translations or adaptations of narrative (or, more generally, cultural) production.



  • We offer you a contract of indefinite duration with a maximum term of 2 years. You will receive a contract for one year of full-time employment as Postdoctoral Research Fellow, followed by a renewal for one other year upon positive evaluation (a longer contract with a lower percentage of employment can be negotiated);
  • Your contract will start on 1/03/2021 at the earliest;
  • Your remuneration will be determined by salary scale PD1. Click here for more information about our salary scales. This is an internationally competitive salary that depends on seniority and corresponds to the salary scales for Postdoctoral Research Fellows as established by the Flemish government;
  • A substantial allowance for travel and other research purposes in addition to the salary;
  • Office space at Ghent University and a solid and engaging academic working environment with a strong international profile (website of the research group). The ERC project resonates with the interests of a number of other scholars at Ghent University and the successful candidates will be able to interact with scholars and students affiliated with various departments and research institutes, such as the Department of Literary Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Ghent Institute for Classical Studies, the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies, the Ghent Centre for the Study of Christian Traditions, and the Group of Early Modern Studies;
  • Professional support for those applying to the many funding schemes at local, regional and European levels;
  • All Ghent University staff members enjoy a number of benefits, such as a wide range of training and education opportunities, 35 days of holiday leave (on an annual basis for a full-time job) supplemented by annual fixed bridge days, a bicycle allowance and eco vouchers. Click here or a complete overview of all the staff benefits (in Dutch).



  • At least 70% of your assignment will be spent on academic research.
  • You will contribute to the strong research tradition of the Department and the University by pursuing excellence in your research and by publishing in journals and with publishers that are internationally accepted as being of the highest quality;
  • You will publish under the parameters of the project in consultation with the Principal Investigator;
  • You will come and live in Belgium, work together with the other team members and the project’s international advisory board, and contribute to a pleasant and stimulating atmosphere;
  • You will play a leading role in the scholarly activities of the research group (e.g. by organizing events, co-supervizing PhD students, etc.).



Apply online through the Ghent University e-recruitment system (click “Solliciteren”) before the deadline of 5th January 2021. We cannot accept late applications or applications that are not submitted through the online system.
Your application should include the following documents (please note that the maximum file size for each field is 10 MB):

  • In the field ‘CV’: your CV, an overview of your study results and a complete and up-to-date list of publications (merged into one pdf file);
  • In the field ‘Cover letter’: your application letter in pdf format, highlighting why you are interested in this position and what added value you expect to bring;
  • In the field ‘Diploma’: a transcript of your PhD degree (if already available). If you have a foreign diploma in a language other than our national languages (Dutch, French or German) or English, please add a translation in one of these languages.
  • In the field ‘Other documents’: a writing sample of ca. 40 pages of published (or forthcoming) work that in your view is particularly good or relevant to the project. (Part of this can be one or more chapters from doctoral dissertations, in which case candidates are asked to please additionally provide a Table of Contents, the Introduction and the Conclusion.)
  • In addition, we kindly ask candidates to arrange for three letters of reference to be sent directly by the referees to the Research Coordinator, Dr Evelien Bracke (

As Ghent University maintains an equal opportunities and diversity policy, everyone is encouraged to apply for this position.



Shortlisted candidates will be asked (in January 2021) to provide a (brief) project proposal within ca. four weeks time. Given the current pandemic and possible travel restrictions, shortlisted candidates will be invited for an online interview to be held in the second half of February 2021.

For more information about this vacancy, please contact Prof. Koen De Temmerman ( Important: please do NOT send your application by email, but apply online (see above).


Ghent University employs more than 8,000 people. It is actively involved in education and research, management and administration, as well as technical and social service provision on a daily basis. It is one of the largest, most exciting employers in the area and offers great career opportunities. Its 11 faculties and more than 80 departments offer state-of-the-art study programmes grounded in research in a wide range of academic fields.

Blog: Lockdown Days, Arabian Nights. NIGHT 2

— This blog post was written by Dr Claire Rachel Jackson, postdoctoral researcher in the Novel Echoes research group.


In Night 1 of my musings on the connections between the ancient novels and the Arabian Nights, I looked particularly at the story of Budur and Kumar, and how its narrative resembles ancient Greek narrative. Today I would like to continue by focusing on another of the tales from the Nights, about Yamilka Queen of the Serpents. In this story, a young woodcutter called Hasib, son of a Greek sage named Daniel, is abandoned in a forest by his (alleged) friends and meets the Queen of the Serpents, who tells her own tale (and several other inset stories) involving a society of apes, a magic ring, and human-animal hybrids.

A recent article by Richard van Leeuwen has suggested that there may be some overlap between this story and Iamblichus’ Babyloniaka, the fragmentary novel preserved primarily in a summary of the ninth-century patriarch Photius, an allusion which may be present even in the echo of Iamblichus in the name of the titular Yamilka.[1] But what’s most striking about both texts is the way they position themselves on the literary and geographical map. Iamblichus’ Babyloniaka is a text explicitly set on the very fringes of the Roman empire at its height – the very title ‘Babylonian Things’ aligns it with the ancient city of Babylon, itself a relic of a former age by the time of the novel. Although the geography of the novel is fuzzy, at least in Photius’ summary, it seems clear that the Babyloniaka was set entirely beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, in an exoticised and orientalised landscape, with virtually no Greek characters. As Helen Morales put it, ‘it is far from clear where to locate Greece in this ‘Greek novel’’.[2] This combination of Greek novel and non-Greek setting draws attention to the limitations of what a Greek novel can and should be, as well as the implied perspective of its audiences. In other words, the Babyloniaka uses its non-Greek setting to explore what Greekness means, both within the narrative and for its external readers.


You will never guess what happens next

The Yamilka narrative draws attention to similar questions, albeit in a different way. The whole tale involves an elaborate structure of inset narratives, analogous to the nesting-doll architecture of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. But what’s notable here is how the levels of narration also correspond with the narrative’s movement across geographical spaces and into fantastical ones. As the inset narratives become more and more elaborate, the spaces they describe become correspondingly exoticised, with lots of human-animal hybrids, unreal landscapes, and bodies which split in half at the waist to go in different directions. Despite these surreal stories (and the fact that the narrator is half-woman, half-snake), we are told that Yamilka tells these stories in Greek to her audience, the son of a Greek doctor. Just as Iamblichus’ Greek novel challenges that designation through its entirely non-Greek setting, the Yamilka narrative explicitly frames itself through a Greek lens which becomes a foil to the wackier and weirder places visited in the course of the narrative. This isn’t to say there is any connection between the two texts, but rather the dialogue between them illuminates the wider issues: they both tackle the familiar and strange, recognisable and defamiliarizing, and invite us as readers to consider where we stand within these contextual frameworks.

Even just from these brief snapshots of the broader mosaic which is the Nights, it’s clear that these narratives offer a number of points of connection with the Greek novel, but nothing like conclusive proof of a relationship between the two. The themes treated in both texts, such as erotic desire, gender roles, and travel into fantastical lands are so general as to testify more to universal themes in narrative rather than a specific relationship between these two corpora. After all, it’s clear that given the diversity of traditions which underlie both the ancient Greek novel and the One Thousand and One Nights there doesn’t need to be a direct relationship between the two for them to engage with similar motifs and concerns.

But we can do more with this ambiguity. As already mentioned in Night 1, the Nights feature in histories of the novel dating back to the sixteenth century, where they become an intermediary between the ancient novel and its early modern counterpart. Why has this potential connection proved so enduring? Do we want to see connections between the two because of our own vested interests in ideas about novels? Tomas Hägg has proposed that the so-called ‘sophistic’ novels (Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon and Heliodorus’ Aithiopika in particular) are more visible in so-called Western reception histories, whereas the parallel ‘pre-sophistic’ novels more so in Eastern ones (the reception of Metoichus and Parthenope in particular).[3] This is certainly possible – but could this be simply a trick of the light? The sophistic/pre-sophistic distinction has increasingly fallen out of fashion in novelistic scholarship, as it implies a discrepancy between sophisticated and unsophisticated narratives which isn’t borne out by the actual texts. While Chariton’s Callirhoe and Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesiaka are linguistically more simple than Heliodorus’ complex and allusive Greek, recent scholarship has done much to establish their literary stylishness and sophisticated narrative design.[4] There’s a danger here of falling prey to a convenient narrative, in which our own perceptions of the narrative and intellectual worth of the novels become evidence for their circulation.


it’s not what is outside, but what’s inside that counts

At its core, these issues force us to confront the limitations of the Greek novel, as well as our own vested interests and priorities as readers. The difficulties in defining the ancient novel and the utility of the term given the many ways the corpus differs from its modern counterpart have long been debated, and there are no easy answers to these questions.[5] But considering works such as the Greek novel against a text like the Nights compels us to consider just how fragile these connections are. What sort of evidence would prove links between texts as different as these? Are we looking for specific references – word-for-word quotations, exact imitations, of specific scenes? Or are we looking for common motifs and themes – and if so, how close do they need to be? What’s at stake here is how much vested interest we have in our ideas of novels and fiction, and what value we’re willing to place on a connection, no matter how tenuous. In other words, by exploring a text such as the Nights from the perspective of ancient novelistic fiction, what we’re forced to confront is not how the two are connected, but how we would be able to tell, and what methodologies can be sustained.

Consequently, what we’ve been doing in our reading group is not to prove that there is a conclusive intertextual connection between the Nights and the ancient novel – that likely can never be proved beyond a doubt. Instead, what’s become clear in our reading is how the Nights forces us to think differently both about the ancient novel and the vicissitudes and methodologies of its reception. Perhaps the most important point which emerges from this reading is not about the relationship between the two, but how our assumptions of a relationship changes our own perspective, as it risks over-simplifying the contexts, genre, literary sophistication, and wider cultural influences of both the Nights and the Greek novel. By reading the two in dialogue but not necessarily in a linear relationship of direct influence, we can better understand how a text such as the Nights challenges our preconceptions about novels and novelistic reception, and think more critically about how to trace these links between cultures, texts, and fictions.



[1] Richard van Leeuwen (2013) ‘De Duizend en één nacht en de Odyssee: een neoplatonische omzwerving,’ Lampas 46.3: 290-300.
[2] Helen Morales (2006) ‘Marrying Mesopotamia: Female Sexuality and Cultural Resistance in Iamblichus’ Babylonian Tales’, Ramus 35.1: 78-101, quotation from pg. 84.
[3] Tomas Hägg (1986) ‘The Oriental Reception of Greek Novels: A Survey with some Preliminary Considerations,’ Symbolae Osloenses 61.1: 99-131.
[4] For a critical reassessment of Xenophon’s literary sophistication see Aldo Tagliabue (2017) Xenophon’s Ephesiaka: A Paraliterary Love-Story from the Ancient World, Groningen.
[5] Simon Goldhill (2008) ‘Genre’ in Tim Whitmarsh (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, Cambridge: 185-200 remains one of the best overviews of these issues.